A commission to make Washington safe for bureaucracy

With all the history in the world, Congress learns no lessons

Another crisis, another Congressional commission.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we should investigate what happened leading up to and including the Capitol Hill Riot and immediate aftermath. It is just every time we have a commission we seem to gain more legislation and lose a bit more liberty. Technocratic Washington will always apply the salve of a new bureaucracy to protect the world outside the Potomac. The Homeland Security Act was the last great bureaucracy born from crisis. The Department of Homeland Security is the umbrella agency created to rule them all. I am sure that the next bipartisan commission concerning the Capitol Riot will result in some other bureaucratic solution, this time to make Washington safe for those that work there.

My first visit to Washington was early in President Carter’s term, probably 1977. In those days there were not federal troops in the streets. No barricade fences. I could, and did, walk the Capitol for hours unencumbered by today’s security requirements. I shared a public elevator in the bowls of Congress with hero aviator, turned astronaut, turned Senator, John Glenn. He was alone, and yes, he did sport his famous blue-eyed Cheshire grin. I was able to visit any Congressional office that suited my fancy. I remember camping out at Senator McGovern’s office, but was out and never returned while I was there. I did chat with then-Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis. He was in town attending a National Governors Association meeting. Yes, he was kind to take time to talk with me. Yes, he exuded intellect, but lacked the effortless charisma that John Glenn offered. The days of an open and free Washington remind me of the old radio home run call of Red Sox announcer Ned Martin, “long gone and hard to find.”

During the Great Depression, our nation experienced another mob descending on Capitol Hill. It was know as The Bonus March and it born out of a promise to veterans serving in World War I. Veterans were promised $1,000 bonuses in the form of certificates to be redeemed in 1945. The depression ravaged many, and veterans were not exempt from the economic suffering. In 1932, an army of veterans marched from their homes to the nation’s capital to convince Congress to redeem their bonus certificates immediately.

Several thousand protesters camped in makeshift tent cities called Shantytowns along the Potomac. President Hoover refused to acknowledge the protesters and believed many to be communist agitators. The Senate adjourned in July without addressing the plight of the bonus veterans. A Bonus Army march then took place to protest Congressional inaction. Riots occurred in an around the Shantytowns and on government properties with police injury, and at least two protester deaths . Concern of continued riots and general unsanitary conditions prompted Hoover to take action to disband the Shantytowns and disperse the protesters. The president wanted a gradual and orderly evacuation. What actually happened was increased rioting and the burning of some of the Bonus Army tent cities. Hoover mobilized the Army and through the use of tear gas, the police regained control of the operation and the Bonus Army was dispersed.

I found the Justice Department report on the Bonus Army Riot interesting. It spelled out the dangers of the large scale protest, difficulties officials encountered in addressing the situation, and validated that the protesters were indeed largely veterans and not communist agitators.

You can read it here: Statement on the Justice Department Investigation of the Bonus Army.

The report had a most interesting conclusion that Congress can learn from.

This experience demonstrates that it is intolerable that organized bodies of men having a grievance or demand upon the Government should be allowed to encamp in the city and attempt to live off the community like soldiers billeted in an enemy country. Attempts by such groups to intimidate or coerce Congress into granting their demands hurt rather than help their cause, and can only end as this one did, in riot and disorder.

I loathe the idea that our Washington national treasures will be closed off from our citizens. I fear that our political class will continue the trend of creating commissions that author reports that result in legislation and policy that close off our nations’s capital. The Justice Department report resulted in a common sense remedy. It was not to close the city, but to guard against having large mobs gather in protest.

Future folks are not going to be able to experience Washington like I was able to in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Here is hoping that the upcoming bipartisan investigation of the Capitol Hill Riot errs on the side of an approachable Washington.

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